By: Derrick kyatuka - Communications Coordinator, Uganda Refugee Response
She seats silently at the front corner of her mud and wattle hut, holding her baby in her arms. She stares at her little one as he enjoys the warmth of her skin. The two seem to enjoy one of the most pleasurable aspects of infant care – bonding. She gently strokes the baby’s arm, and he responds with a smile. In response, she looks straight into his eyes and smiles. She then gently soothes his back and the baby chuckles and wants to be cuddled.
Seventeen-year-old Rose has mastered her baby’s sounds and gestures and the two share a very special bond. She sings for him a cradlesong in the local language, Kakwa. Although the two enjoy each other’s company now, Rose says she got pregnant unexpectedly and the course of her life took a sudden twist.
“During the lockdown, we were home idle and life started getting boring”, she narrates. Most of my friends got boyfriends and I also decided to get one. He promised to provide for me most of my needs because my parents were not working and could hardly provide. We were together for about three months. One day, he invited me to a disco dance. We danced together, and he tricked me into having sex with him.”
It never occurred to Rose that her irrational decision would later cause bad blood between her and her family. “I missed my menses and when I talked to our neighbour about it, she advised me to go for a pregnancy test”, she recalls. “To my dismay, I was already one month pregnant. I immediately became distressed because I didn’t know how to approach my parents about it and I did not want to get married.”
Rose chose silence. The pregnancy was still too young to be noticeable. However, a few weeks later, there was something that she could not hide for long – pregnancy sickness. Nausea, vomiting and feeling low on energy put her down.
“I could not hide it anymore”, Rose shares, “especially from my mother. She observed me closely and asked me if I was pregnant. I opened up to her and I still remember the disappointment I saw on her face. I too felt I had disappointed my parents because they had high hopes in me as their first child.”
When the devastating news reached her father, he immediately told Rose to leave his home and get married. Frustrated, Rose started looking for her boyfriend in vain. When he learnt about the pregnancy, he ran back to South Sudan and Rose has never heard from him again.
A Child Protection Committee Member tipped World Vision staff about Rose’ condition. That marked the beginning of relief, harmonious living, and restoration of hope in Rose’ life. “World Vision staff advised my father not to beat me or chase me away from home. They assured him how I could go back to school after delivery and after several discussions, he accepted me back and loved me like before”, adds Rose.
World Vision staff moved through the pregnancy journey with Rose before and after delivery. They monitored her daily, supported her with clothes for the baby and her as well, soap, pants, and a bucket. “After delivery, I went back to school and I am now in Primary Seven. When I am at school, my mother is very supportive and takes care of the baby. I am focused on my studies and I want to study hard and become a nurse in future. World Vision staff still do routine visits at home”, she says.
Just like Rose, 16-year-old Joyce also decided to get a boyfriend with hopes that he would help meet her basic needs. “My father died while we were in South Sudan", Joyce narrates. "I now stay with my stepfather whom I sometimes fear to ask for support because he doesn’t have any work. I got a boyfriend who promised to buy for me sandals and clothes. He later got me pregnant and because he was 18 years [old], he feared arrest and disappeared after knowing that I was pregnant.”
“Life is very challenging for me because as the baby grows, the demands are many and I cannot meet most of them", Joyce adds. "World Vision is supporting me with items like soap and clothes, and psychosocial support.”
COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown led to a spike in the number of teenage pregnancy cases in refugee settlements where World Vision operates. Hundreds of adolescent girls like Rose and Joyce fell victims to teenage pregnancy and early marriage because of the closure of schools.
Although Uganda had the longest school shutdown in the world, affecting more than 10 million learners for nearly two years, all hope is not lost. World Vision is restoring hope to children on the move, especially teenage mothers, in refugee settlements in West Nile through the It Takes A World to End Violence against Children Campaign.
Launched last year in refugee settlements, the campaign has set a firm ground of encouraging teenage mothers and pregnant girls to go back to school.
“Through the campaign, we respond to cases affecting children but we also use it as a platform to encourage teenage mothers and pregnant girls to go back to school”, says Layer Akankwasa, a child protection facilitator. We work closely with other implementing partners in the settlements to achieve this goal. We also respond to specific needs that are discouraging children from going to school. Further, we conduct home visits and interact with children to understand their issues and provide support.”
Layer adds, “We have so far supported more than 900 teenage mothers and pregnant girls in Bidibidi settlement to go back to school, and of these, more than 50 are nationals. We equip them as child ambassadors and their voices are encouraging others to go back to school.”
Today, Rose advises fellow teenage mothers to go back to school in order to live a dignified life in the future. “Pregnancy is not the end and should not kill your dreams", she urges. "Our parents brought us to Uganda to get good education and we should not kill their vision for us. It is only through going to school that we shall achieve our dreams and live happy lives.”